In the last few days, they have gone from being something I rarely thought about to something I've thought about a lot - and in a pretty unusual context, too. After all, if you're ill, you probably wouldn't immediately think of worms as an essential part of a cure. Leeches, perhaps, but not worms. If you're wondering what worms have to do with my research, then you need to get yourself to Ottery St Mary library on 13th September for their event "Living off the Land - the folklore and traditions of country crafts". It's a joint talk with my husband Mark, creator of The Folklore Podcast. We are both members of the Exeter Authors Association and this is a FREE event organised via the EAA. Mark is speaking on the folklore of wool and associated crafts in Spindle, Shuttle and Needle. My talk, Plants, Persecution and Poultices, looks at medieval healers and the thin line they trod between being everyone's friend or their community's scapegoat. Check out the link at the bottom of this blog post for details.
I spent most of this afternoon at the Devon Heritage Centre in Exeter, researching medieval remedies. The Heritage Centre is one of those places which makes you immediately ask yourself why you have never been there before. Within five minutes of being let loose in the card index, I knew that there were going to be some truly fascinating discoveries to be made.
The Heritage Centre only has one reception desk (luckily for me after my National Archives comedy registration...) so getting in was a lot more straightforward than at Kew. I shed the plastic pockets and the folder like a pro and am delighted to report that there was not even a hint of eye-rolling from the lovely and very helpful lady behind the desk. I managed to get in with ONE locker key this time, too.
Even when I went to the enquiries desk, the staff there were not at all phased by my unbelievably vague request. Essentially, I was trying to locate the collection of family documents mentioned by Prof. James Daybell in his lecture, which was the subject of my last blog post. I didn't have the name of the family, or, indeed, any other details, so I wasn't expecting to have a particularly fruitful afternoon. However, after having been pointed in the direction of the card index...well. What can I say? There is so much amazing information to be found - and I found what I needed.
Well, first of all, I found worms, to be precise.
Back in the late 1600s/early 1700s, a lady from Filleigh, Devon, named Bridget Fortescue collected together a number of "receits" (recipes) for cures for the King's Evil. This is the common term for scrofula, a swelling in the lymph nodes in the neck which was a symptom of tuberculosis. It was believed that the monarch could cure this ailment with his 'royal touch'.
If you found yourself afflicted with the King's Evil and didn't happen to have a king available, then you had to resort to alternative cures. And worms.
Mrs Fortescue was evidently extremely concerned about the King's Evil, for in the documents I examined today, there were 40 different cures for it, which had been collected from a variety of people - I copied out those received from Lady Clinton and "my Lady Hollis". Lady Clinton's instructions begin thus (spelling and lack of punctuation as written):
"Take 40 or 50 earthworms alive cutt off both ends and with a penknife slitte and put them in water and salt, shifting till they are cleare whilst ye Broth boyle..."
The unfortunate earthworms are later added to the said broth and the whole lot boiled "till ye Broth be enough". It is then strained and ready for, one presumes, consumption, as there are no instructions for its use.
Alternative cures include the medieval equivalent of those healthy smoothies people make today which look like they are drinking algae. This is the recipe from Lady Hollis, who provided quite detailed instructions for use. The patient should "...just be able to endure" the taste of the concoction, which was made from steeped leaves.
The other use of earthworms as a "cure" came from Ruth St Leger-Gordon's The Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor. If the thought of chucking worms into a broth is bad enough, it must have been far worse for the young girl who (pre-1964) was taken to a healer on Dartmoor after injuring her arm. The healer, having examined the injury, proceeded to sew a couple of earthworms into it. Not surprisingly, the arm became infected and urgent action was required to save it, this time by a more conventional medical practitioner.
I am very much looking forward to returning to the Heritage Centre to dig around for other (possibly worm-related) delights.
If you're interested in the Living off the Land event, please have a look at my author page on Facebook, where you can register your interest and share it with anyone you think might like to come along. Please be aware that Ottery library is a small venue! Mark and I are happy to bring the talk to a venue near you - just drop me a PM via my author page or use the contact form on here.